The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Title: The Elegance of The Hedgehog
Author: Muriel Barbery
Published: 2006 by Editions Gallimard, Paris (2008 by Europa Editions)
Number of pages: 325
Rating: 5 out of 5

When you see a book being praised all over the web do you ever think: “It’s either going to be great, or one of the most disappointing books I’ve read in my life.” ? That’s how I felt about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which turned out to be great, and this book. Which is also great. If you can read it with a dictionary at hand.

It amazes me that a book with such a high level of vocabulary words has been such a bestseller. When a plethora of readers seem to be picking up the likes of Danielle Steele and Nora Roberts, judging from their book sales, it makes me wonder how many are left who can understand page one of Muriel’s. The first page alone had words like this:

  • eructation: an act or instance of belching
  • deleterious: harmful often in a subtle or unexpected way

But, maybe that makes me sound as snobby about my reading as Muriel’s heroine, Renee, appears to be about her own. She calls herself an ‘autodidact’, a person who is self taught. Incongruous as her position of concierge may be, because she has read Tolstoy and listened to Mozart’s Requiem, she secretly scorns the rich who inhabit her building. Much as I do the nouveau riche who have moved into our city, because as anyone knows, money alone does not make you smart. Or kind. Or honorable.

Sharing in her scorn is the younger daughter of a family also living in her building. It’s as though we are listening to a version of The Emperor’s New Clothes when we read the thoughts of these two characters. They blatantly name the charade that the rich have ensconced themselves in, while reveling in the joy that the pleasure of hazelnut chocolate, or pastries with tea, can afford.

Hidden within their hearts, though, are terrible burdens: of not being strong enough to help those who need it, of being afraid you will die if you don’t stay where you belong, of staging your own punishment.

In this complex novel, which examines the heart, I found myself deeply moved when reading the experiences of an outcast. It makes me wonder if we aren’t all, to some degree, strangers in this land. Or, hedgehogs of our own.

Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog; on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary-and terribly elegant. (p. 143)

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19 thoughts on “The Elegance of the Hedgehog

  1. I just did a post about what EW says will be the biggest week of the year in publishing, due to the release of Dan Brown's latest, the Oprah Book Club pick, a memoir of Ted Kennedy, as well as some other things. Interestingly, none of the bloggers that commented are the least interested in these releases. We must have slightly different reading interests than those that drive the top 10 lists! Anyway, it is very uplifting to know that a book like this would cause a stir! You have the best finds!

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  2. And I have been looking for a book to read, just finished mine (The Glass of time -Michael Cox which was excellent, written in the same sort of vein as The Crimson Petal and the White – Michel Faber) and so I think I will go in search of this one, thanks for the recommendation!

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  3. Oh god, I am not a fan of high vocabulary. After so many years being forced to work with dictionary, mainly with German, I have an apathy towards dictionaries and I would hate it, if I had to read a novel like that. Sometimes it's true that I like a weird penned phrase with some big words, but an entire novel… This however sounds interesting. Thanks for the review.

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  4. I read this book a while ago in its french version and loved it. In France apartement buldings (we live mostly in apartements) have what is called a "consierge" which is what Mme Michel is.I'd like to read this novel again in it's english version

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  5. This has been on my TBR list for a while too. Luckily my sister got it and loved it. Reading your review has made me want to go out and get it from her. But wait, I've still got a couple more books for your challenge to complete first!

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  6. This book is amazing! It has to be one of my favorite reads of the year. I absolutely loved this book! It made me cry, wince, laugh out loud and everything else you can imagine. I will definitely revisit this book from time to time. Can't wait to read Barbery's new book – Gourmet Rhapsody!

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  7. I totally loved both Hedge Hog and Gourmet Rhapsody. Gourmet Rhapsody is set in the same building. It was written before Hedgehog but translated after it. I recently reviewed it on my blog.

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  8. Okay, okay, I promise that with my very next coupon I will BUY (not borrow, but purchase) this book. Too many people whom I respect have loved this, vocabulary or no vocabulary (andwhat is a vocabulary for, if not to be expanded?) Besides, I like hedgehogs…I have also left you something on my blog; you deserve it.

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  9. I recently read this book and consider it one of my all time faves. Wrote a review on it in my blog. I didn't use a dictionary, nor a philosophy reference book, not because I understood all the words or ideas, but because I could not wait to see what's going to happen. The characters and their journeys are just too interesting for me to stop. I found your blog from ds, and have heard a lot of wonderful things happening here. And I'm just glad I've arrived.

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  10. A very interesting review. I am often put off by books that use polysyllabic words just for the sake of it. Almost as much as I am irritated by books that just string words together to form a sentence without any thought for rhythm or ambience (Memory Keeper's Daughter springs to mind!). But this book looks like it is worth reading…especially after I've read the comments about it being on so many readers' favourite lists.

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  11. Wow! A 5 out of 5?! I'm so glad to hear this. One of my customers recommended this book to me last year, so of course I had to buy a copy. Have I read it yet? No! But I will, especially now that I know how much you enjoyed it. I'll be sure to get my dictionary out. Too bad I can't just double-click on the words. Ah, that's right. I don't have a Kindle. But my hubby does… 🙂

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  12. Lesley, one of my book clubs just discussed this last night. Most of them loved it as I did. However, I have two questions about what the author was writing. I feel adamant that she was making a certain point, although it was elusive to me…and no one would pick up on what I wanted to discuss. They didn't think the two instances had any deeper meaning than just being written. Hmmm, I know I'm confusing, but when you read this let's talk!

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